Chicago Theatre Review
God Save the Queen
The Audience – Timeline Theatre
One of Chicago’s most richly talented and critically acclaimed actresses is Janet Ulrich Brooks. For theatergoers familiar with this great artist’s work, the pleasure of seeing her again, holding the intimate TimeLine stage in the palm of her hand for two hours, is an extreme pleasure. Enjoying Ms. Brooks’ performance, not only as the star of this entertaining play, but sharing the stage with four other equally remarkable, talented Windy City actors, is sheer theatrical heaven. Add to this performances by juvenile actresses Audrey Edwards and Sophie Ackerman, alternating in the role of young Princess Elizabeth at different performances, and you have a recipe for an evening of royal splendor.
Written four years ago by English playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan, this contemporary historical play speculates about what took place behind the closed doors of the Palace. It’s a play liberally peppered with both moments of deep pathos and unexpected humor. It focuses on Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, as seen in the company of several of her twelve prime ministers at the private, informal weekly audiences she held. These powerful, savvy men and women, who served Great Britain between 1952 and 2015, were HRH’s primary connection with Parliament and England’s involvement with other world powers. Morgan imagines that Elizabeth, whose position as Queen was to merely be consulted, advised or warned, actually served as a kind of emotional counselor for her Prime Ministers.
There are two uniquely theatrical aspects that make this play even more extraordinary. Except for the role of the Queen and her Equerry, impeccably portrayed by Ms. Brooks and the superb David Lively, each of the Prime Minsters, as well as every other supporting character, are all played by just three other talented actors. They include Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, majestically brought to life by Matt DeCaro; John Major, Gordon Brown, Anthony Eden and David Cameron, played with intelligence and sensitivity by Mark Ulrich; and a foreboding Margaret Thatcher, along with the Queen’s Secretary and Scottish nanny, Margaret (Bobo) MacDonald, uniquely portrayed by Carmen Roman. The other unusual aspect of this play is that the scenes don’t flow chronologically. With only quick, subtle changes in wardrobe, wigs, dialects and decorum, the audience is suddenly introduced to each new character.
Adroitly directed by TimeLine’s smart guide-on-the-side, Nick Bowling, a particular expert with historical drama, this play moves along beautifully. Morgan’s script becomes, in Bowling’s shrewd grasp, much more than just a revue of political scenes. It shifts through time and space, aided only by David Lively’s clipped, concise narration. Expert dialect coaching is provided by Elise Kauzlaric, helping to make certain that each character is a singular, sharp and clearly understandable individual. Jeffrey Kmiec’s sparse scenic design is quietly understated, yet pristinely elegant. Upon an off-white carpeted in-the-round stage, with four stairways and exits, adorned with an array of stylish furniture of a similar color, the set becomes the neutral drawing room of both Buckingham Palace and Balmoral Castle. The space above the stage is dominated by Julie Mack’s spectacularly large crystal chandelier that sheds light on the playing area. Theresa Ham’s nicely tailored English costumes both convey the personalities of her prime ministers while hinting at the changing years throughout Elizabeth’s reign. Wig supervision by Katie Cordts augment the strength of each costume and character.
This piquant peak behind-the-scenes into the business of ruling Britain’s Buckingham Palace earned Dame Helen Mirren both the Olivier and the Evening Standard Award, for her West End performance, as well as the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Actress in a Play on Broadway. This accomplished, three-dimensional portrayal of Queen Elizabeth given by Janet Ulrich Brooks should place her in contention for Chicago’s own award for Best Actress in a Play. She is, in a word, incredible.
Watch this actress’ face, gaze into the wisdom of those scrutinizing eyes, notice the subtle curl of her lips as she attempts to hide a guarded smile. Perceptive theatergoers will notice how Ms. Brooks’ body language changes ever so delicately, whether she’s bracing herself for a first meeting with Winston Churchill, enjoying a pleasant visit with Harold Wilson, standing up to a militant Maggie Thatcher or musing about her childhood with her imaginary younger self. This actress goes far beyond mere impersonation to endow the Monarch with an honest inner life that is truly captivating and stunning.
Not all of Queen Elizabeth’s prime ministers are depicted in this play, although the script was updated when it transferred to Broadway. Tony Blair was included at that time, while the more obscure James Callaghan was omitted. Also missing are Harold MacMillan, Sir Alec Douglas Home and Edward Heath. But this play isn’t meant to be an examination of every prime minister’s character and his relationship with his Queen.
What Morgan has written is a retrospective look at how HRH related and responded to those politically closest to her in a panorama of political history. We’re able to see, through Queen Elizabeth’s relationships with her Prime Ministers, how she regarded the advice and information they shared and how the changing character of this charming, intelligent, long-reigning monarch has evolved. Here the figurehead of Great Britain becomes a warm, flesh-and-blood human being, portrayed as a mixture of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Rather than being simply the Queen, Elizabeth is seen instead, thanks to a wonderfully measured performance by the luminous Janet Ulrich Brooks, as a thoughtful, caring woman.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 16-November 12 by TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-281-8463 or by going to www.timelinetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.